THE morning of the same day that witnessed the incarceration of Philippa, Morton rose after a sleepless and tormented night and made his resolve: this matter had to be cleared up. When his fiancée had been removed to her room and the flurried maid had brought him the message that "mademoiselle was recovering, but begged to be excused," he had betaken himself to his rooms in a high state of excitement. Above all else, he was enraged at Mrs. Durham, the woman who had dared to fling such cowardly accusations at the most saintly girl on earth. As he paced the floor he formed his determinations. Philippa must not be drawn into this wretched business. He would conduct it for her; it was his place and privilege, and he would see who should write retractions or apologies, Philippa or Mrs. Durham. In fancy he hounded the malicious authoress to her lair, delivered an oration on feminine weakness, folly, and venom, and departed only to place in the hands of his wronged angel the document wrung from her accuser.
But Victoria—alas, Victoria! His old friendship and loyalty pleaded for her. How could he have been so mistaken? To do him justice, had he not been love-mad he never would have owned a doubt of her. But so is man constituted that one touch of passion weakens his hold on his perceptions, even his certain knowledge. He would have fought to the last ditch for her against all odds, save yellow-haired Philippa with the violet eyes. But Fate had placed before him just that one antagonist, and his friendship failed,—not without pain, not without hurt to his whole nature. But he could not doubt his love.
Valdeck and his equivocal words rose before him—Valdeck, the criminal! But perhaps, after all, that charge was groundless; Philippa had declared that Victoria had a malicious vengeance to satisfy in her statement of the case.
At last, however, Morton's instincts refused to be longer suppressed. Whatever Valdeck's relations to Victoria might be, Morton was forced to confess that he believed her story; the man was undoubtedly the social vampire she pictured. Had he not felt it from the first, and begged his darling to shun the contaminating companionship? It was only Philippa's innocence and lack of knowledge of things worldly that had led her to tolerate the impostor! Then why believe the villain's testimony against Victoria? Morton's saner self demanded. Perhaps after all the blame lay with the Hungarian alone. Philippa had undoubtedly lent too ready an ear to the man's accusations, brought solely to throw discredit on Victoria's hitherto unimpeached word,—women were notoriously uncharitable towards each other. His intuition told him he was near the truth now. He might even clear Victoria's skirts from blame, with no graver charge against Philippa than a too-great willingness to listen and believe evil of her neighbors. Again and again he went over the ground, gaining greater faith in his surmises. He forgot his dinner, smoked himself into a thoroughly nervous condition, and passed a night of wakefulness and speculation.
With the morning came action. First he must see Mrs. Durham, and secure a written retraction of her accusation against Philippa; then he would sift the matter down to the last grain of fact, exonerate Victoria, and bring Valdeck to his much-needed punishment.
As early as he decently could, Morton telephoned to Mrs. Durham, and was promptly answered.
His anger flamed up once more as he sat in the stuffy booth and heard over the connecting wire the well-modulated tones of her voice.
"This is Mr. Conway," he answered her first question. "Can you make it convenient to see me this morning?" His tone was cold, and boded no mercy.
To his surprise the answer came fearlessly, and it was even more belligerent and icy than his own. "Certainly; I was expecting you. If you will come for me at once, you will find me at breakfast in the restaurant. We can go into the matter at once."
Her readiness staggered him; he had expected equivocation and delay; this businesslike alertness was unsettling.
"In half an hour, then?" he inquired, with a new note of anxiety in his voice.
"The sooner the better," came the unwavering reply. And he hung up the receiver with a sensation of dread.
How could she be so sure of herself? How dared she face him with her trumped-up story? Surely there must be some appearance, some foundation—perfectly innocent—but making misinterpretation possible.
No! He recalled vividly Philippa's upturned, beseeching eyes, and her tearful, childish accent as she had turned to him. "Morton, if you love me, don't give them the satisfaction of listening. You know it isn't true!"
Of course he knew it wasn't true, poor, bewildered little girl! Feeling again all his eager animosity, he went out and called a passing hansom.
As he drove up Fifth Avenue, he hardened his heart and steeled his nerves. This clashing of feminine weapons and armor was new and harassing. How was one to tell a lady, young, pretty, and bewitchingly gowned, just what a mean, wretched example of humanity she really was! Morton would vastly have preferred a dozen tigers or as many famished duns. But he buckled on his mail of insensibility and justice, and relentlessly proceeded.
As they drew up before the vast, yellow side of the studio building, he collected himself and assumed a formally polite manner, calculated to strike terror into any less businesslike and well-administered citadel than Mrs. Durham's heart.
As he entered the restaurant, the lady rose to meet him, brisk, frank, and energetic.
"Good morning, Mr. Conway. Of course you've been vastly annoyed. I quite understand. And the sooner it's over, the better. Isn't that so?"
He noted with annoyance that she seemed even fresher, younger, more self-possessed, and more beautifully tailored than ever.
"You understand the nature of my visit, then?" he inquired, coldly.
"Oh, dear, yes. You want me to explain what I meant. Dare I produce my informant?—and all the rest of it. My dear man, I should not have made that assertion had I not been perfectly prepared to do so. You have a cab? Good! It will save time, and I must be back by twelve. My typewriter, you know." She smiled sweetly, and preceded him into the hall.
He assisted her into the hansom and took his seat. "Where to?" he asked, his curiosity piercing his indifferent manner.
"To your uncle Morris Courncey's office."
Morton gave the address in bewilderment.
"I'll tell you a few things about this, if you like," said Mrs. Durham, leaning back quite at her ease, and not in the least flustered. "Your good old relative was a great friend of Victoria's parents, you see, and some of this nasty gossip concerning the daughter reached his ears. Of course, he made up his mind to discover who had originated the said slander. He came to me—we were old pals, too, as it happened, and he likewise knew me to be a great admirer and an unswerving friend of Victoria's." There was the least suspicion of emphasis marking the "unswerving," and Morton winced.
"He asked me to whom Victoria was indebted for these fascinating little innuendoes and open remarks, and I told him just what every one else has, namely, that Victoria's dear friend, Miss Ford, was at the bottom of it all. 'What!' exclaimed old Morris, 'Philippa Ford? Why, she wouldn't dare! I saw her myself go up-stairs with that Valdeck in Gagano's restaurant, where no decent woman ever goes! She couldn't afford to speak ill of any one!' 'Well,' I answered, 'she has.' 'Then,' said your uncle Morris, 'I'll be hanged if I don't prove she isn't to be believed!'"
Morton swung round in his seat as if he had been hit, and faced his companion, white to the lips.
"Kindly remember I am engaged to Miss Ford," he said, slowly, dizzied with indignation.
Mrs. Durham sighed. "I'm trying to prepare you for what you are bound to get from Courncey, who has, I have learned, a very just perception of things, and a wonderfully fine vocabulary with which to clothe it. To continue, I begged him to do nothing till I saw him again. I wanted to think things over and make the most of the information when the time came. That was yesterday morning, and the time came in the afternoon."
"Mr. Courncey is mistaken; a fancied resemblance," he answered, doggedly.
"Not at all; but I will let him speak for himself. In the meantime, I am honestly sorry for you, though I've no patience with any one claiming even ordinary common sense who pins his faith on a woman of Miss Ford's stamp when he has the friendship of such a personality as Victoria. You deserve—well, I don't know that my imagination can picture anything quite bad enough. She's worth ten dozen such as you! And all the golden-haired Philippas that ever were born wouldn't make a showing that Vic couldn't overturn with her little finger. Ouf! I'm getting angry. Let's be quiet."
"I think it would be in better taste," Morton murmured, under his breath.
Mrs. Durham leaned back, watching the endless procession of city blocks and the ceaseless, hurrying procession that crowded the sidewalk and congested the thoroughfares.
They reached the region of shops, and drove down on Broadway, where the buildings grew taller, and the gilt wholesale signs more aggressive. Noise and rumble all about them, yet the two sat enveloped in silence, threading their way amid the banging, pounding cable-cars, skimming by other hurrying hansoms, skilfully avoiding the heavy, jarring wheels of laden trucks.
They at last drew up before the towering front of a huge office hive, from which, busy as bees, in and out, rushed anxious business men. Elevators sped up and down with lightning swiftness; everywhere was slippery marble and wrought metal, things designed for cleanliness, durability, and hard usage, yet ornate. A strange outgrowth of luxury and utility pushed to their extreme.
As if in a dream, they were caught in the rush, and snapped into one of the elevators. Instantly they shot upward, stopping with disturbing jerks at various landings. At the ninth floor they stepped out, and walked down the marble corridor.
Before the office sign of Courncey & Hall they paused. Mechanically Morton opened the door, and his commanding companion swept by him. With a regal nod to the clerk who advanced to meet them, she handed her card with a request for instant admittance to the senior partner's private office. The sound of her voice was apparently an "Open Sesame," for the ground-glass door at the upper end of the room was opened abruptly by a red-faced little man, who rushed down on her after the manner of an affectionate bulldog, whose exuberant greeting might well be mistaken by the uninitiated for a threatening advance.
"So it's you, is it? Come in, come in, come in!"
He fired the words with inconceivable rapidity, as he wrung first Mrs. Durham's hand, and then his nephew's somewhat reluctant palm.
They filed into the sanctum, and the little millionaire banged the door smartly.
"Sit down, sit down, sit down!" he volleyed. "Don't mind me if I tramp about—nervous, you know, nervous! I suppose you brought Morton down to hear what I have to say? Glad of it, glad of it." He paused, fixed his piercing black eyes on Morton.
Mrs. Durham had seated herself calmly. But Morton remained erect, towering above his rapid-firing uncle by a full head and a half.
"You're not engaged to her, are you?" Courncey demanded, suddenly suspicious. "I heard rumors, you know—rumors. But I denied them, of course. Still, before we go any further: Are you here as Victoria's friend to run down that cowardly lie, or are you trying to clear that snivelling little cat, Philippa Ford?"
"Uncle Morris." he answered, simply. "I am engaged to Miss Ford, but"—and the faintest hesitation trembled in his words—"I want to know the truth. Mrs. Durham has accused the young lady of dining in a notorious restaurant with a—well, in questionable company, while she was professing her love for me, and had been engaged only a few days. And Miss Ford positively denies this."
"But she did—she did!" cried the little man.
Morton raised his hand deprecatingly. "That has to he proved. As for these stories, I am only too anxious to clear Victoria—you know how fond I am, and always have been, of her. I am convinced that this man Valdeck has put these lies in circulation to shield himself. Perhaps Miss Ford may have repeated them, for which I should be heartily sorry; but, if so, it was in the belief that she was speaking the truth."
Mr. Courncey fairly danced in his desire to break this torrent of speech and get in his own crowding words. "Fiddlesticks! Bosh!" he roared, finally. "Miserable little minx, glad enough she was to blacken a girl like Victoria Claudel! I have learned—and it hasn't been from Mrs. Durham, either—" He turned as he spoke, indicating with a quick gesture the chair near the door. It was empty.
The two men looked startled for a moment, then relieved. With rare tact the lady had removed her restraining presence.
Courncey bubbled with appreciation. "And now, thank God! I can swear all I please. As I said, I have heard from many sources that the Ford girl has been doing her level best to ruin Victoria's reputation! Now answer me: didn't she shake even your confidence?"
Morton flushed to the roots of his hair, and his uncle, requiring no further answer, chuckled angrily.
"Of course she did, confound her! And let me tell you I saw her—saw her myself, going into Gagano's. I was sitting in the restaurant facing the door that opens into the hall leading to the private rooms up-stairs. They came in about half-past seven. I can describe every rag she wore: a black velvet dress and a sable cape, and a black hat with feathers on it. She glanced into the room. I could see the annoyance on her face when she discovered that the door was open, but somehow she didn't recognize me. With her was that man Valdeck, and I'll bet my last share in the 'Consolidated' he's a bad egg, in spite of the fuss these women make over him. Who in thunder is he? And where did he come from? Confound him!"
"I must believe you mistaken," Morton objected, but the old resolution was gone from his manner.
"Mistaken, mistaken! Damme, sir, I'm not mistaken! Unless she takes back every word she has said about the daughter of my old friend—a girl who hasn't a father of her own to help her—if she doesn't, I say, I'll make what I saw public! Fanshaw was with me, and saw her, too, and can corroborate it! I guess the three of us can prove what we say, and I'll bet Miss Philippa won't be able to produce an alibi!"
"Three?" was all Morton could say, for his tongue thickened and his eyes were dim.
"The waiter, you blockhead, the waiter!" roared Courncey. "After Mrs. Durham exploded her bomb, she went down and interviewed him. Very clever woman, that, very clever! Ought to have been a man, a business man. Clear head, clear eye, no fluster, no brag. Anyway, she argued that one or the other of them would see the danger and shut the waiter up. So she went first. Good move, very! But, unfortunately, the fellow wouldn't say much."
The young man drew himself up to his full height, scorn and agony at work on his handsome face.
"Pretty game, isn't it, trying to bribe servants? And, pray, what should a waiter of Gagano's know of Miss Ford? I should count his identification mere perjury!"
"Not a bit of it, not a bit of it! As it happens, this one has worked at Sherry's and Delmonico's. Man's been sick—just out of hospital. Took Gagano's job pro tem. But it seems it's professional etiquette with them to keep mum—doctors, priests, and waiters, same lodge."
Morton sat down miserably. His world was spinning about him. If only Philippa had not looked him in the face with those angelic eyes, and denied. If only she had not held to her accusation of Victoria, and made herself out such a supremely superior being. If only she had left one loophole for her own shortcomings. The escapade he would have forgiven—what girl does not need forgiveness for some daredevil, foolish action sometime in her life? Who was he to blame her?
His eyes burned and his mouth twitched as his perfect trust of Philippa crumbled and fell from him.
He was roused by the sound of Mrs. Durham's voice, and looking up, noticed her slim, flat shoulders and the graceful sweep of her skirts. She had entered and was talking to Courncey with her back toward him. He was glad of that; he could not bear that she should see his face.
Rising quickly, he walked to the window and stood looking down on the crowded streets below, over which, antlike, men and women swarmed and crawled. He almost wished himself one of those silent, undisturbed sleepers down in Trinity churchyard, where the headstones protruded, black with damp, from the dark brown mold-spotted over with rotten, porous snow. He pulled himself together, and turned again to the room. Mrs. Durham's face was toward him now, and he heard her voice, modulated to not ungentle tones. He did not catch her words. He was conscious only of one decision. For sake of what had been, he would shield Philippa! for the sake of his own illusion—the illusion, not the reality!
"You need give no further proof, if you have any," he said. "I know Uncle Morris and Fanshaw too well."
"You called me to account," Mrs. Durham went on. "I have made good my statements. Now let me appeal to you. You have lost Philippa, do you want to lose Victoria, too? Help us to clear up this horrid slander! I think if we all use our personal influence, we can turn the cogs of this slow, legal machinery with much greater speed. We can have a closer watch put upon Valdeck, and employ our own detective, if necessary. Now, we've worked it out this way—your uncle and I. We think that Valdeck has something vital on foot now, and so could not change his plans. He tried to countermine Victoria when he saw that she recognized him, solely to gain time. It was playing a dangerous game, so the time needed must have been only comparatively short, and the stake large. Now it's three weeks since information was laid against him. Things must be coming to a head, and he must not give us the slip. You understand?"
"Well put, very well put!" Mr. Courncey exclaimed, quickly. "Good statement of the case. Now, Morton, I can see that since Miss Ford's name has been connected with yours, you want to protect her, though she don't deserve it—wretched little yellow cat!"
"Yes," Morton nodded, gravely. "I would like to save her, if it's possible."
"If she takes it all back about Victoria—"
"Publicly," cut in Mrs. Durham.
"Of course, of course!" bellowed Courncey. "Whoever thought of anything else?"
"I fancy she will do that, but we mustn't make it too difficult—she's proud—"
"Vain!" sniffed Mrs. Durham.
Morton took no notice. "Let us keep all this quite to ourselves; don't let a word of it get out to the newspapers, or in common talk. Miss Ford shall own herself mistaken, and I have no doubt she will give Valdeck as the authority for her former assertions. Then we can push him to the wall all the easier, and we need have no mercy!"
There was a grimness in the click of his jaw as he shut his teeth that boded ill for the suave foreigner if ever he should come within reach of Morton's long, powerful arm.
"We may count on you, then?" said Mrs. Durham. "I think, since of course you must see Miss Ford, that you might explain matters better than I can."
"I would rather you saw her yourself," he said, dully, "or, better still, have a talk with her aunt."
"Very well," she assented. "Morris, I think we will leave you. Sorry to have made this little scene in your office, but I know you are anxious for your old friend Claudel's sake, and his daughter's, too."
"Oh, it'll turn out all right, all right!" jerked Courncey. "You've been a trump, a trump, madam! And, damme, if I ever get into trouble, I'll come to you." The little man wrung her hand once more, then lifted his snapping, black eyes, from which all the hardness had vanished, to the troubled face of his nephew.
"You're hit hard," he said, gravely, "and I'm sorry; but, my boy, better find these things out before marriage than afterward. That girl's a bad lot, for all her yellow hair and baby eyes. She's rotten to the core—it's inherited, it's natural, and it's cultivated. I know her! Have the courage to break your engagement—don't be a fool, and let her make you believe you're tied. You've got to do the square thing—not the soft thing, mind you, but the square thing—by yourself, first, and before all. Good-bye, good-bye!"
Once more Morton found himself in the elevator, being dropped down-stairs at a sickening pace, and presently he was out in the street again.
"If you don't mind, Mrs. Durham," he heard himself saying, "I'll put you into a cab. I need exercise and I want to think, so I'd better walk up."
"Of course," she said, cheerily. "Don't mind me in the least. Just put me aboard a hansom." She looked up at him with such a light of sweetness in her face that in spite of his former antagonism his heart warmed toward her.
She held out her hand. "You'll believe me, won't you? It's only out of my love for Victoria that I'm pushing this thing so far. I don't usually make it my business to hound any woman down. I've got a theory that, after all, a woman pays such a fearful price for everything in life that we must consider she's always on the short side of the balance-sheet, and so be extra generous and attend to our own business. And I'm really not such a frightfully meddlesome old body."
He almost smiled at her earnestness, as he gave her his hand and she lightly settled herself in a cab.
"Good-bye," she called.
He raised his hat as the hansom turned and began its zigzag journey northward. Then, plunging into the crowd, he walked on mechanically.
Now it chanced that Victoria, hot and angry from the police-station episode, and Morton, sore and miserable from his interview, both started to walk off their troubles. Together they had contracted the habit. From childhood up they were wont to wear out their griefs and rages in company, walking at a furious gait, sometimes for hours in unbroken silence, till the burdened one would be moved to confidences, and then, the trouble past, they would saunter comfortably home.
In this case Victoria had the start and was further up-town, but Morton's huge stride carried him forward at greater speed than Victoria's steady swing.
Now, if A starts from C, walking at the rate of a hundred and twenty miles an hour, and B starts from D, walking at the rate of a hundred and eighty miles an hour, how long will it take B to overtake A?
The result occurred in the neighborhood of Thirty-Second Street and Eighth Avenue. By a common impulse they had made for that region. There they had formerly indulged their mutual peripatetic propensities. And the neighborhood being unfrequented, a higher steam-pressure and a more regular course could be assured.
It suddenly dawned on Morton that the back of the girl walking a block or so directly in front of him was strangely familiar: that strong stride, that broad-shouldered, erect carriage, and—completing and convincing detail—the heavy hair that was struggling to let itself down. That hair bristled with helpless pins, and the constant gesture by which she absent-mindedly strove to push them in brought up a thousand affectionate memories.
Involuntarily he quickened his pace, closing the distance between them till only a foot or so intervened.
"Tory," he called, "hold on; wait for me."
The girl turned abruptly, her face all stretched to speak, but she looked in his face for an instant, and moved on in silence, joining her step with his.
The years slipped by as if by a miracle; they were boy and girl again, walking off a rage in the old way. The ugly brick avenue, with its withered shops and shabby boarding-houses, took on a beautiful, friendly familiarity; every iron grating had its little history, every show-window its episode. Even the changes consequent upon the lapse of time served to recall the houses that had vanished.Gradually the old spirit took hold of them; their recent troubles and estrangement fell away.
"THE GIRL TURNED ABRUPTLY."
Victoria was busy with her own thoughts, but happy in the regained companionship of her chum. She felt instinctively the chrysalis breaking in his mind, and the beautiful butterfly of their mutual understanding evolving itself more splendid than the rudimentary, though beloved, little grub of their childish affection.
Within view of the Park entrance, they came to a little restaurant often frequented in former years.
"Let's go in and eat caviare," she suggested, breaking the silence.
"Let's," he answered. "Let's go in and eat caviare and drink Würzburger, and talk it all over, just as we used to!"